For Nashville-based singer-songwriter Cody Belew, his newest single “Charlene” is not just a song to him. “Charlene” represents a real-life person while “speaking to the dichotomy of being a gay Christian man in the South” as he interrogates religion and how it is weaponized – specifically against the queer community.
“Charlene” was inspired by an encounter that Belew had several years ago with a God-fearing Christian woman who collected his rent check for his business. She was kind but refused to accept his sexuality. He said that she would constantly “pray for him”.
“I was trying to sort of figure her out,” Belew told GLAAD’s Anthony Allen Ramos in a recent interview. Belew also advocated for himself, telling her his “Southern Baptist testimony” about how he is saved just like her and Jesus is with him every day.
“She just wouldn’t have it and it was the first time in my life that somebody wasn’t questioning my faith; they were telling where I was wrong in my faith,” said Belew.
Belew said he was angry because she couldn’t be persuaded to accept him. He sat down and wrote the song from start to finish in one sitting – something he doesn’t do often. “It was like this communion, a reminder of what God had told me all those years ago, which is: ‘don’t sweat these people because you and me are cool’,” Belew said. “I felt like I needed to call it ‘Charlene’.”
Even though the original, real-life Charlene was the foundation of the song, it has a broader message. It represents an entire population of Christians who wield religion as a weapon to condemn ‘the others.’ They have lost their way from Jesus’ message, which is to love everybody.
“I felt like it was important to name her and call it out because now, there are Charlenes everywhere,” explains Belew. He said they exist largely in the United States. “They are trying to shape our society in their image – not even in Jesus’ [image] because they’re so far off the message of Christ, that it’s dangerous.”
The song is visualized with a music video directed by Tim Cofield, who has also worked with Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, and Sheryl Crow. The video includes the titular Charlene (played by Andi Tillman) as she becomes increasingly disgusted with the inclusive world around her.
The video also includes a 13-foot-high cross that Belew made for the video. The cross is layered with meaning for him. “Here I am sticking Charlene on the cross [but] not to crucify her. That’s not the point,” he explains. “The point is to say, y’all have taken Jesus so far out of the picture and put yourselves in the role of judging and jury. The cross means something totally different today than it did when He died on the cross – it’s almost like reclaiming the narrative.”
Being based in Nashville, Belew is very aware of the conversations and attacks surrounding trans people and the queer community. He hopes that “Charlene” becomes a conversation starter for families at dinner tables.
“I’m hoping that it sort of enters the zeitgeist [of] religious parents because I just think they all need reminding of Jesus’s message period,” he admits. “Churches across the United States have become weaponized.”
He says, “In my brain, church is supposed to be like Mayberry. It’s supposed to be like a Norman Rockwell painting.” Belew adds that there has always been a nice wholesome sheen on the church, and it is now starting to be exposed. “I just think it’s time to pull the lid off and look at it.”
Listen to “Charlene” here!